Courtney McLaughlin’s son, an elementary school student in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, sometimes likes to join his Google Meet classes lying upside down.
This isn’t something he’d be able to do in a traditional classroom. But none of his learning this past year has been “traditional." In March, after one year of virtual learning, CHCCS reopened schools in a hybrid format – students could choose to return to masked, socially distant classrooms or continue to learn from home.
All three of McLaughlin’s elementary school-aged children will be learning remotely for the rest of the school year. Hers is one of many Black families that have done the same – in CHCCS, 52.3 percent of Black students have stayed remote compared to 42.8 percent of white students, according to a March learning survey from the district.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected the Black community, and McLaughlin lives in a high-risk household. She's lost nine family members to COVID-19.
“When things go wrong, it's going to hit the communities that are most vulnerable,” she said. “And so being identified as one of those vulnerable community members, I am not necessarily in a rush to bring my children back in the building.”
But the virus is only one of the reasons she and many other Black parents have chosen to keep their kids at home.
More safety, fewer suspensions
McLaughlin’s son is always running around. He “learns through motion," she says.
She said keeping him at home has given him a space where he can engage with his classes while also being able to let out his energy in a way he might have gotten in trouble for in a physical classroom.
And discipline is something she doesn’t have to worry about when he’s at home with her.
In CHCCS, Black students are suspended at disproportionately high rates compared to white students. For every 1,000 students in the district in 2019-20, Black students received 100.73 short-term suspensions, 0.73 long-term suspensions and 127.01 in-school suspensions. White students received 6.40 short-term suspensions, no long term suspensions and 15.53 in-school suspensions.
This is something McLaughlin has kept in mind, especially now that students are expected to follow safety protocols like keeping masks on and remaining socially distanced from their peers.
“Do I send my child into a space, who’s been home for a year and all in his culture and all in his energy, and just authentically himself, go back into a building where he has to adhere to some strict protocol?” she asked. “What is a soft reminder for a Black child that some of your teachers are already going to see as being in trouble by the time they get in your door?”
In January 2021, more than 50 percent of Black parents nationwide reported a more favorable view of homeschooling during the pandemic.
Denise Page has two sons: a senior at Chapel Hill High School and a sixth grader at McDougle Middle School. She said her children learning remotely means she no longer has to worry about whether they will come back home from school every day whole, or “broken mentally and emotionally into pieces."
“That was a whole new breath of fresh air,” she said.
McLaughlin serves on the district’s Equity Advisory Council and is the co-founder and leader of Frank Porter Graham Elementary School's parent group Coalition of Leaders for African-descendant Student Success with Page. She said some Black families have felt more included in their students’ education during remote learning.
Instead of teachers communicating less, she said her kids’ teachers have been communicating with her more than ever.
“This is the first time a lot of Black families have had that experience of having, I guess, a little bit of power, and a little bit of say-so,” she said. “I know what my kids learn; I know how he’s being treated during the day. I can hear it in the next room.”
Sonya Brown, who has an eighth-grade daughter at McDougle Middle School, agreed.
“There's more control,” she said. “I feel like I can handle it better than I could with her being in the school system.”
A lack of communication and trust
While McLaughlin and other parents feel teachers have been more communicative during remote learning, she said the same can’t be said for the district.
CHCCS, like all other public school districts in North Carolina, was required by state law to reopen schools. The district sent reopening surveys to determine how families felt.
McLaughlin said she would have liked to see more conversation around these reopening surveys. She said Black families already have a deep sense of distrust of the district. She co-authored a report from Durham-based advocacy group Village of Wisdom that surveyed 30 community members in local school districts.
The report found that families felt the school districts have a history of making decisions without the input of Black parents.
For these families, McLaughlin said coming back to school is more complicated than answering “yes/no” questions about whether she wants her children to come back into the school building and whether they need transportation.
“There’s no conversation about 'What is it that you need to feel safe coming back in the building?'” she said. “'What are the things that encourage you to come back in the building? What are you expecting about being back in the building?'”
Page wished parents had had more time to fill out reopening surveys – she said families needed more than one week to make a decision.
In addition, when the district shifted to in-person learning, schedules changed even for students who chose to stay at home.
One reason Brown kept her daughter at home was to try to maintain some level of stability during a tumultuous time. But her daughter had to readjust to a new schedule and class times.
“She's up and down like a yo-yo,” Brown said.
Learning disparities continued, not exacerbated
North Carolina required schools to reopen to combat learning loss, which reports say has been greater for students of color. But CHCCS already has the second-highest achievement gap between Black and white students in the country.
McLaughlin said, for her children, learning gaps already existed. One of her sons is two grade levels behind. But he was two grade levels behind before the pandemic too.
She said she disagrees with the message that schools have to reopen because Black and brown children are failing.
“It's not even that they're failing; it’s that you’re failing them,” she said. “I'm not going to bring myself into a space where not only do we have the same harms of yesterday, but now we have it paired with a virus.”
There have been community initiatives aimed to lessen these gaps, like the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP's Learning Bridge Program to give extra academic support to Black and Latinx students.
Tiffany Boston, the district's high school equity specialist, said CHCCS has checked in with families through surveys and focused on students having voices in decision-making spaces. She pointed to the district’s meals program and Equity Advisory Council listening sessions.
McLaughlin acknowledged that her family’s experience isn’t universal, and perspectives across the Black community vary.
But she said looking forward, as the district plans for End-of-Grade/End-of-Course testing, summer programs and the potential for more children going back to in-person learning in the fall, she hopes to see more communication.
“There's still a lot of people imagining and planning and trying to find solutions, even if it takes a long time to create change in the school structure, finding ways to meet the needs right now for children,” McLaughlin said. “To keep waiting for everything else to change means that we're just taking that precious time from them.”
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